‘Many people want to do something that surpasses themselves’

Targets and drivers

Dick den Hertog is professor of operations research at the University of Amsterdam. He first applied mathematical models to the optimal distribution of distribution centers, but now he is using them to improve access to health care.

‘Optimization is the key word in my field. We deal with decision problems with a large number of options that are impossible to calculate by a computer. With mathematics, we try to find fast, smart and robust solutions. After my PhD research, I worked in consultancy for seven years. For example, I looked at the optimal location of Philips distribution centers or the maintenance list for NS’s railway infrastructure. After a great time in the consulting business, it started to itch to go back to science. At Tilburg University I could immediately become a professor.’

Targets and drivers
To make the world a little better, that is the ambition of many engineers. Read their personal stories in the file Measure and drive.

Mathematics for society

Then I read the book Excellence without soul from Harvard Dean Harry Lewis. He wondered: Should we stop letting the young engage in meaningful things? That book inspired me a lot. There are many major social problems in this world: hunger, drought, floods. Until then I had mainly worked for companies. There is nothing wrong with that, but mathematical techniques can also be very valuable for social problems. In addition, I have a Christian background and during that time my convictions have changed and deepened. My eyes were opened to more than just commercial dimensions. I wanted to introduce this social focus in both my teaching and my research. The first social project followed not much later. Participants asked us to help develop mathematical models to optimize dike heights and set new standards. Our research showed where dike raising was necessary and where it was not. Our plan has saved eight billion euros.’

For a better world

‘Through my Tilburg colleague Hein Fleuren, professor of business analysis and operations research, I subsequently became involved in the UN’s World Food Programme. What food should they buy for which regions? Where can they best buy this and how do you keep transport costs as low as possible? Our math can help with that too. It is a very successful project that has saved millions of euros in costs – so they can help more people with food. Hein founded the Zero Hunger Lab, where he tackles all kinds of food issues, but I preferred to expand my horizons. I often talked with my American colleague Dimitris Bertsimas from MIT about using mathematics for sustainability goals. Together we came up with the initiative Analytics for a Better World, ABW. We launched it as a counterpart to weapons of mass destruction, from the bookWeapons of Mathematics Destruction by Cathy O’Neil, on the disadvantages of algorithms and mathematics, such as invasions of privacy. ABW started at the beginning of this year and the enthusiasm is huge. For example, we were asked by the World Bank to designate new locations for health clinics in East Timor so that 95 percent of the population can find one within a five kilometer radius. We have set up courses in ABW at both MIT and the University of Amsterdam, where I now work. They are popular. I think it’s fine when young people go for the highest salary, but I can see that many now find it less important. Many people want to do something that surpasses themselves. Maybe I’m naive, but I also see a genuine, inherent desire in our commercial partners to contribute to a better world.’

Text: Amanda Verdonk
Portrait: Bianca Sistermans

Text: Amanda Verdonk
Portrait: Bianca Sistermans

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